Holidays in Utopia: Orford Ness / from the archive / issue 2

Orfordness, on the Suffolk coast, is Europe’s largest vegetated shingle spit and a major nature reserve. It is also the place where Britain weapons-tested the nuclear bomb. An unlikely, yet emblematic site of the 20th century, Orfordness was an RAF aerial targeting base and the birthplace of RADAR. At the height of the cold war, this was where the Blue Danube and WE177a Nuclear bombs were exposed to extremes of temperature, vibration and impact to ensure they could still deliver their deadly payload.

Orfordness Pagoda image courtesy of Cmglee

Orfordness Pagoda image courtesy of Cmglee

Abandoned by the MoD at the end of the cold war, the site is now run by the National Trust who pursues a policy of managed neglect. We can still see the relics and remnants that have been left behind - unexploded ordinance, banks of switches in squat bunkers and oddly elegant concrete ‘pagodas’ resembling roman temples. These structures of another time, shaped by a bomb that never went off, are rapidly becoming modern ruins, reclaimed by nature amidst the shifting shingle.

It is no wonder that WG Sebald felt as if he were walking amidst the ruins of our civilization in Orfordness. This place was remade in a time of Mutually Assured Destruction; a deadly embrace in which we haunted each other’s waking dreams and nightmares, trusting that they were MAD too.

The monumental scale and decaying, detached repose of these set pieces eerily echoes a time before we became liquid, when history was written in mass. As Zizek and Tarkovsky tell us in their different ways, we should treasure these places, these wasted memoryscapes, which, in their ruination elude both nature and culture. These are material ghosts, haunting reminders of the lost second world and its time. The rooms inside are revealed only by our presence and as we remember, we do so tactically as well as with tactility, knowing that each memory hastens their destruction.

© Benjamin Tallis

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.